Toronto FC's impressive winning streak a testament to talent, deep roster
There is plenty to admire about Toronto FC's six-game winning streak.
The Reds have won at home and on the road. They have proved to be adaptable, using multiple formations along the way. Toronto has logged plenty of frequent flyer miles in the process, having endured a cross-continent trip to Seattle; all while cramming the six wins into an absurd 22-day span.
As for how TFC have been able to string together this many victories, it has certainly helped that Toronto didn't have a seven-plus-game road odyssey to start the season, like it did the two previous campaigns. That has enabled the Reds' attack to get going earlier in the season.
"When you have road trips like we did in past years, you sort of become a little bit more defensive in the sense that you're trying to get a point, that you can hang around," said Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC. "Then at home, you have to adjust and be the aggressor. I think this year, how it's evened out, we've been able to continue our identity from last year as one of the most difficult teams to play against in terms of our attack."
But any discussion of Toronto's run always comes back to its depth. How often have you heard an MLS manager point to injuries as an explanation for a poor run of results? It usually starts with the caveat, "Everyone has injuries, but ..." at which point, said manager will point to how the injuries afflicting his team weighed heavier on results.
Toronto has made a mockery of such thinking. Manager Greg Vanney has gone so far as to claim in an interview with the Toronto Sun that his side is the "deepest team in the history of the league," and it's not an idle boast. Vanney has used 19 players during the current run, and last season's defensive mainstay, Drew Moor, isn't even among them, having been sidelined by a heart ailment. Sebastian Giovinco, the 2015 MVP, played just 44 minutes over the past three games. Last weekend against Minnesota United, Vanney was forced to make three injury or illness-induced substitutions, and Toronto still managed to win 3-2.
So how is it that Toronto has been able to construct such a deep roster? After all, every team in the league is trying to squeeze as much value out of the salary cap as possible.
For Toronto, there are several factors at work. The first is that Bezbatchenko's experience of having worked in the league office prior to arriving in Toronto gave him some insight into the do's and don'ts of MLS roster construction.
"Teams that tended to do well, they source their players from a variety of different places," he said via telephone. "You can't become over reliant on international players, or being trade-heavy. You can't really build from the draft like you can in the NBA or the NFL. You have to take advantage of all the unique mechanisms that MLS has and so that you have variety in your roster, you have various ages, and you really start to focus on things such as keeping your group together so they've been at Toronto FC for a number of years. That's something that we focused on."
A quick perusal of Toronto's roster reveals how effective Bezbatchenko's approach has been. TFC's designated player trio of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Giovinco is arguably the best in the league. You have free agent signings -- both within the league and without -- like Moor, MLS assist leader Victor Vasquez and Tosaint Rickets. Trades brought in the likes of Steven Beitashour and the hugely underrated Justin Morrow. The internal pipeline -- TFC II and the club's academy -- has yielded the likes of Jay Chapman and Raheem Edwards. Vanney has then done an exceptional job in making the pieces fit.
Such an approach isn't exactly a state secret, however. A look around MLS sees teams like the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers and FC Dallas using multiple pipelines, though each with their own emphasis. So there has to be more to it, right? When pushed to explain why Toronto seems to be doing this better than most other MLS clubs, Bezbatchenko was at a loss -- or perhaps keeping his cards close to his chest. But the Toronto GM did mention that his approach to building his roster has been largely methodical, with the DPs helping to accelerate the process.
"We won five games in 2012, six games in 2013. We weren't going to go from six wins to 15 wins in one year," he said. "You can do that, but that's rare, and typically it involves a lot of things like luck. What we want to do is go from six to 11 to 15 and then have a sustainable success. To do that, you're going to get players that are a little bit better. Then you go up a rung on the ladder. Then you try to acquire players that can take you to the next level. At each point you have to evaluate what you have and where you want to go."
Toronto has also invested wisely in infrastructure, and that foundation-building has begun to pay paid off on multiple fronts. Bezbatchenko noted that Edwards had made more than 40 appearances for TFC II, enabling him to fit into the first team more seamlessly when the call came, and validating the work of the academy and reserve team. A program to teach young players to adopt a professional lifestyle has paid dividends. The team's training facility not only provides the means for players to advance their careers, but it's been a recruiting tool as well. Toronto's "robust" scouting department has helped identify the right players.
"We're not talking bodies; we're talking knowledge and information through a few individuals," said Bezbatchenko of his scouts. "We have to be resourceful, even though we have [owners] MLSE behind us."
That approach certainly isn't stopping now, even as Bezbatchenko says the roster needs only "tweaking" at this point. He's presently in Latin America scouting players.
"The real hard thing now is deciding not to do things," he said. "While it might effectively make your team better from a pure talent standpoint, it might hurt the dynamics of how things come together on the field."
TFC look set to continue to rely on their depth. Defender Nick Hagglund is out for 8-12 weeks with a torn MCL in his left knee, while Giovinco is out for three weeks with a quad strain. Such developments make Bezbatchenko appreciative of the "cushion" that Toronto has created, especially with various international commitments set to cut into the team's depth during the summer. But he won't stop looking for ways to improve his side either.
"Between our injuries and guys getting sick, you never know what's going to happen," he said. "You have to be ready, always prepping for the next transfer window, and probably the one following to some degree. You can't start right when you need the player. You have to have the players lined up and ready to go."
So far this season, the players already on TFC's roster have been that and more.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.